Is it possible, given a densely detailed history that goes back thousands of years, to pinpoint the 100 greatest jokes in the history of comedy? Probably not, but that didn’t stop the editors of Vulture, abetted by a slew of writers, comedians, and historians, from assembling a list called “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy.” In order to preserve at least some of their sanity, the creators of this 21,000-word listicle have set a few ground rules: only American comedians (though British-born Charlie Chaplin sneaks in), nothing “retrograde” (i.e., offensive by modern standards), and only bits that have been preserved in some form via audio or video. That leaves out Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Kids In The Hall, to name just two, but it still provides plenty of material to cover. And just what is a “joke,” anyway? According to Vulture: “a discrete moment of comedy, whether from stand-up, a sketch, an album, a movie, or a TV show.” Some of the “jokes” here don’t even have words, so readers should not necessarily expect a collection of funny quotes. Taken in total, this article amounts to nothing less than a pocket history of American humor from 1906 to 2015, though there are some good zingers.
The running theme here is influence. This is not necessarily a collection of the funniest things comedians have ever said or done: It’s more about the moments that have either been widely imitated or that have changed the public’s perception about an issue. W.C. Fields, for instance, is cited as a precursor to Larry David. The roots of The Daily Show lie in the topical humor of Will Rogers. The Mary Tyler Moore Show captured what it was like to be a working woman in America, paving the way for later shows like 30 Rock. Stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Bill Hicks and more have told jokes that either capsulized their own personalities or said something profound and true about American life. The Simpsons and Seinfeld found new ways to be funny within the boundaries of the half-hour network sitcom. Some of the most exciting developments in comedy over the last century, meanwhile, have occurred on talk shows and variety shows, where madmen like Jonathan Winters and Andy Kaufman were set loose upon the world.
Purists may quibble with the inclusions and omissions here (where, for instance, are Bob & Ray?), but the article nevertheless stands as an incredible treasure trove of funny and important moments in the history of humor. Remember that this is an exhibition, not a competition. Please, no wagering.